passing out

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Calvin’s take on testing, by the inimitable Bill Watterson

Alternate title: acing those placement exams.

Congratulations! You made it past auditions, and now you get to be a fancy masters or doctoral student and live out all your fantasies of striding down the halls of the music building while wee undergrads swivel their heads in awe! Not so fast, though: there’s just one more hurdle to leap over. (As if those applications, pre-screenings, and auditions weren’t enough. But come on, if you wanted life to be easy, you wouldn’t be a musician.)

PLACEMENT EXAMS.

The theory and history placement exams nearly all incoming graduate students will have to take are just preliminary assessments to see where your theory/history level is at. So theoretically, you don’t have to study at all, particularly if (a) you’re a theory/history BAMF and could practically teach a class yourself, or (b) you’re happy to wither away, wasting hours of your life in remedial classes while your peers are practicing, performing, etc.

Neither of those options are for me! So, let’s study together! Yay! Here are some resources for your summer reviewing pleasure.

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on pre-screenings

Photo by Will Fisher.

It’s that wonderful time of year again: the air chills into a November crisp, bakeries and cafés are flooded with the scent of pumpkin everything, students with book-laden bags shuffle across campus through flurries of gold and crimson leaves–and graduating music students hole themselves up in dank practice rooms till ungodly hours, start losing copious amounts of hair, and consume indecent amounts of caffeine.

It’s APPLICATION SEASON! Hurray!

One of the most important parts of your application as a music student is your pre-screening recording, which is a requirement for most reputable music schools across the United States. Now, recording is a very different creature from live performance. The good thing about recording is that you can start over if you mess up during a piece. The bad thing about it? You can start over if you mess up during a piece. “Maybe I should just re-do it” can be a hideously distracting thought that nags you for the whole piece after even the tiniest slip, and giving in to that thought too often will lead to frustration and a dozen unusable takes. So, here are some of the things I like to keep in mind when recording:

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Audition advice.

Rodgers, Berlin, Hammerstein, and Helen Tamiris, watching auditions at the St. James Theatre (source)

Many student musicians are now feeling that heart-quickening mixture of excitement and dread as they enter the school audition season. They pack their best clothes and travel to strange cities to play in front of strangers for fifteen minutes…and then return home to await the answer, all the while praying fervently for a positive one.

Auditioning for schools isn’t an easy process, but there are some things we can do to feel more at ease and successful throughout the process. I’m by no means an old hand at auditioning, but I’ve been lucky enough to have been on the receiving end of valuable audition advice.

  1. Practice the audition, not just the music. You’ve likely been investing hours into the preparation of your pieces, but hold mock auditions–multiple times–by inviting friends, family, and/or colleagues to sit in front of you and watch you play your audition pieces. Have them follow the audition process by stopping you in the middle of a piece, telling you which piece to play next, and selecting movements in random order.
  2. Visualize a successful audition. This ties into the mock audition: by imagining yourself in a strange studio or auditorium, playing in front of judges, your actual audition will seem less like foreign territory. Rather than putting energy into fears and worries about the unknown, program your mind with positive mental images.
  3. Practice calmly. Especially on audition day, resist the urge to rush through your pieces beginning to end. Play through them slowly and mindfully, start at different sections, and review problem spots calmly and carefully for confidence’s sake.
  4. Don’t apologize for mistakes. A friend once made the astute observation that competitions are about a single performance, but auditions are about potential. Teachers and judges understand that the audition process is nerve-racking, and they don’t expect flawless performances. Rather than letting technical slips distract you, accept the mistake and move on as quickly as possible. Music is a living, breathing, emotional art, and you’re not there to show that you can play a Beethoven sonata without missing any notes–you’re there to show that you’ve worked hard and that you’re passionate about and invested in music.
  5. Be memorable. The faculty might see dozens of hopeful students in a day, and hundreds of them in a month. Besides ensuring that your musical interpretation is logical, creative, and nuanced, it might help to put yourself in the shoes of a businessperson. Dress well. Show your personality. Look people in the eye. Walk with confidence and purpose. If you have the opportunity to talk with the faculty, try to ask thoughtful questions.
  6. Be an artist. Finally, remember that passing a single audition is not the final destination. What judges think of you is secondary to your own convictions about, and love for, music. One of the things that helped me the most when auditioning for grad school was hearing a friend advise me to imagine myself as a touring musician, concertizing in new and exciting cities. That image of being an established artist, sharing music in front of fresh audiences, inspired me to care more about my music, to infuse my interpretation with more personal creativity. I once heard a quote similar to: “Practicing is the work. Performing should be the enjoyment.” Imagine your audition as a performance, another chance to express yourself through art, and it will be a more positive process for you (and the judges too!).

Finally, a quote from another field which deals with auditions, on not worrying too much about the audition process and accepting whatever the outcome may be:

“They are dying for you to blow them away. They’re on your side. What do you think—they want to go through hundreds of people and settle? No. Just do what you do. Either you’re right for the part or you’re not—let them decide.” –Ian Tucker, acting coach

Further reading:
The Violin Site – Fearless Audition
Bulletproof Musician – What is the Most Overlooked Step in Audition Preparation?

What’s your best audition tip?